What is a Meniscus Tear? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leah Bell-Steele
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 17, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University

Physiotherapist assesses woman with right knee pain

According to the Australian Family Physician, meniscus tears can occur up to 6 times per 1,000 people which equates to more than 150,000 Australians.[1] Males between the ages of 20-29 years have the highest risk of developing these injuries.[1] Additionally, those who play ball sports, such as soccer and rugby are up to 3.58 times more likely to be diagnosed with meniscus tears.[2]

Meniscus tears do not always have to be traumatic or sports-related. This condition can either be classified as a degenerative or acute injury. Acute knee injuries are typically related to forceful movements, such as when the knee is bent and rotated. On the other hand, degenerative meniscus tears occur gradually with repetitive tasks (e.g. sitting, squatting, kneeling).[2]

Read on to understand what you should know about meniscus tears and knee pain; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

What is a Meniscus Tear?

Meniscus tears are injuries which occur in the cartilage between the knee joint. The meniscus are two horse-shoe shaped pieces of cartilage which helps the knee absorb weight and impact. Forceful twisting knee movements, such as pivoting, can cause tears in the meniscus cartilage.

What are the symptoms of meniscus tears?

The symptoms of a meniscus tear in the knee include; pain, swelling, stiffness and difficulty straightening the knee. People may also experience catching or locking of the knee joint, limping and pain on the inside of the knee joint.

You may hear a popping sound around the knee joint when your meniscus tears.

Common symptoms of a meniscus tear

  • Swelling around the knee joint

  • Pain

  • Tenderness

  • Difficulty bending and straightening your knee

  • Feeling of instability or “giving away” of your knee.

Typically, people with a torn meniscus may experience slipping and popping sensations when moving the knee. This is because of the cartilage fragments that have become loose and block the knee joint.

What causes meniscus tears?

A meniscus tear usually occurs from direct pressure or contact on the knee, particularly with a twisting force. A sudden turn or squatting movement usually causes a meniscus tear.

Sudden movements that directly cause a large amount of pressure with rotational force on the knee joint can cause meniscus injury.

Common causes of a meniscus tear

  • Sudden pivot or turn

  • Deep squats

  • Heavy lifting.

High-intensity sports that require agility skills such as sudden stops and turns can cause meniscus tears.

Sports that increase the risk of meniscus tears

  • Basketball

  • Football

  • Soccer

  • Tennis

  • Netball

  • Volleyball

Meniscus tears can also be caused by degeneration. As we get older, our bones and cartilage weaken, leading to an increased risk of injuring and tearing the meniscus.[1]

How is a meniscus tear diagnosed?

There are several options available when it comes to diagnosing your knee pain as a meniscus tear. One of the more common and most recommended by Australian GPs is an assessment from a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapists are highly specialised medical professionals that deal with joint and cartilage injuries like a torn meniscus. A physiotherapy assessment is simple yet comprehensive.

Like visiting a GP, your assessment will start with your physiotherapist asking you vital questions about your injury. This is referred to as a consultation. Your consultation will last for about 30 to 60 minutes. During this time discuss relevant issues relating to your knee injury.

After establishing the background of your condition, your physiotherapist will perform specific physical tests to determine the most likely cause of your pain and rule out other conditions.

Following your initial assessment, your physiotherapist will provide you with a tailored treatment plan based on your condition.

From here, your physiotherapist will give you the details of your treatment program; this will include:

  • Number of treatment sessions

  • List of exercises you need to do at home

  • Timeline of your recovery.

How is a meniscus tear treated?

There are several options when it comes to treating a meniscus tear. One of the more common and the treatment option referred to by Australian GPs the most is physiotherapy.

Meniscus tears are an injury that physiotherapists come across regularly.The process of treatment is straightforward. Following an initial consultation, the physiotherapist will be in the best position to determine your treatment plan.

A combination of manual therapy, stretching, and specific movement exercises will be given to you by your physiotherapist. Physiotherapists are experts in dealing with knee pain and musculoskeletal conditions.

Depending on the severity of your meniscus tear, the physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Manual Therapy - Gentle hands-on therapy can help reduce swelling and increase range of motion.

  • Soft Tissue Mobilisation - Similar to massage, soft tissue treatment is helpful in reducing pain and helping with swelling.

  • Dry Needling - Similar to acupuncture, dry needling can be useful in pain management.

  • Therapeutic Exercises - Used in the process of rehabilitation to develop strength.

  • Agility and Balance Training - Higher-level exercises that will be helpful in the late stage of rehabilitation.

A typical physiotherapy session with your local physiotherapist will last anywhere between 30-60 minutes. It is not uncommon for patients to feel the benefits in just one session.

Next step - Creating a treatment plan made for you

Following your initial appointment, your physiotherapist will craft a tailored treatment plan that will highlight the course of action required, including what exercises you need to do at home and provide you with a timeline for how long it should take for a full recovery.

Self-care for a meniscus tear

If you think you have a meniscus tear, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  • Cold compress

If there is significant inflammation around the knee, consider applying a cold compress for about 10 to 15 minutes. This will reduce the amount of swelling and pain in your knee joint.

  • Take a break

Listen to your body and rest. Watch out for the signs of inflammation and symptoms of a meniscus tear. Seek professional help and advice from your physiotherapist before engaging again in high-intensity activities. Most of the time, athletes will continue a game with torn meniscus until inflammation overwhelms the knee joint, leading to an increased risk of damage in the knee.

  • RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)

RICE is crucial in the first 24 hours after the injury. This will help you reduce the pain and control the swelling.

  • Use an assistive device in the meantime.

Assistive devices such as crutches can help you decrease the load on your knee and assist you in walking. This will help to prevent further damage to your meniscus during the initial stage of the injury.

Things to avoid:

  • Avoid activities that worsen the pain

Take rest and consult a physiotherapist as soon as possible. Avoid weight-bearing activities and putting heavy loads on your knees as much as possible.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

In the case of a more severe meniscus tear, surgical intervention may be required.

Diagnostic imaging may be done initially, such as a CT scan or MRI to assess the knee joint structure. If those scans show a significant lesion or tear, then the specialist may decide to operate.

Surgery for a torn meniscus is surprisingly straight-forward, and is all done via keyhole surgery. This means no major scars or stitches to worry about afterwards.

The recovery time post-surgery varies from person to person, however, you will be out of hospital quickly. After which, you will begin the surgical rehabilitation process with your physiotherapist.

The physiotherapy intervention required post-surgery is actually quite similar to the treatment provided in cases that do not require an operation.

If your GP determines that they could treat your torn meniscus without surgery, they may coordinate with your physiotherapist to provide you with proper treatment and further assessment.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for a meniscus tear?

Ultimately, recovery time is dependent on your proactiveness to seek professional treatment and the severity of your knee pain and injury.

A minor meniscus tear can resolve without surgery and usually heals within 6-8 weeks. Physiotherapy is vital in ensuring adequate recovery.

If surgery is required, there will be an extensive period of rehabilitation following the surgery. This usually takes approximately 12 weeks of dedicated rehabilitation and physiotherapy.

Important factors in recovery include:

  • Sticking to your rehabilitation program and regularly exercising

  • Resuming your sports activity gradually

  • Paying attention to pain, and resting as necessary.

You may immediately feel signs of relief during physiotherapy. However, you will be asked to continue with your program to strengthen your muscles and correct imbalances that will help prevent future injuries.

Can a meniscus tear be prevented?

Guaranteeing prevention can be impossible; however, you can decrease the risk of patella tendonitis through some of these techniques. These preventative strategies listed are actually also quite useful tips for rehabilitation and recovery if you have already injured yourself.

  • Strengthen your muscles: Keeping your lower body muscles strong by regular exercise will prevent soft tissue injuries and allow your joints greater stability. Your physiotherapist will provide you with optimised training exercises to keep your lower body strong and prevent injuries.

  • Maintain flexibility: Maintaining the flexibility of your muscles through stretching, yoga, or tai chi will help you maintain your knee joint’s natural range of motion.

  • Activate your muscles before intense activity: Proper warm-up and activation of your lower body muscles, particularly the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, can help you maximise your performance and prevent injuries to your knee.

  • Wear properly fitting shoes: Select shoes that fit properly and protect you from injuries. Each person has different footwear needs depending on their anatomy. Consult your physiotherapist for assessment and recommendation.

  • Optimising your workouts and training routine: Over fatigued muscles provide less protection on your joints and increase the chance of injury. Make sure that you are adequately rested in between your activities.

Outlook and the main takeaways

One of the main takeaways from this article is that there are many causes, symptoms and severities of meniscus injuries. The critical thing to do is to listen to your body. Pain is a signal telling you to take action, so make sure you act on that signal and book an appointment with a physiotherapist today!

Anatomy of the meniscus

Three bones form your knee joint: the thigh bone (femur), shinbone (tibia) and kneecap (patella).

Inside your knee, there are two wedge-shaped cartilage called the meniscus. They are located between the thigh bone and shinbone. They act as a cushion or shock absorber, which protects the vital bone structures of the knee joint.

These structures are essential in knee stability and transmitting the weight around the knee joint.

Written by Leah Bell-Steele
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Published on March 17, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 17, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on March 17, 2022
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